‘Worl-map Fi Stop Draw Jamaica Small!’

In a series of humorous poems written at the height of Independence euphoria in the early1960s, Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, raises some quite serious questions about Jamaica’s readiness for the rigours of independence.  In the opening verse of the poem, “Independance” – yes ‘dance’ – Miss Lou expresses her misgivings about the strains of the nation’s new political status:

Independance wid a vengeance!

Independance raisin Cain!

Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope

We chin can stan de strain!

Miss Lou acknowledges the fact that Independence is much more than the song and dance of Festival celebrations. It requires a capacity for self-sacrifice that some Jamaicans may stubbornly resist:

No easy-come by freeness tings,

Nuff labour, some privation,

Not much of dis an less of dat

An plenty studiration.

In “Independence Dignity” an excited speaker addresses a Jamaican away from home:

Dear Cousin Min, yuh miss sinting,

Yuh should be over yah

Fi see Independence Celebration

Capture Jamaica.

Miss Lou’s choice of the word ‘capture’ suggests that Independence may prove to be a rather restrictive state of affairs.  Like the ‘privation’ and ‘studiration’ that are the price of Independence, the level of discipline that the new nation’s status requires seems far different from the usual unruly conduct of some out of order Jamaicans:

Yuh waan see how Jamaica people

Rise to de occasion

An deestant up demself fi greet

De birt a dem new nation!

Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting,

Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated;

Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout

As Independence was celebrated.

This amusing catalogue of all the bad behaviour that is temporarily suspended suggests that after rising to the occasion for one ‘degeh-degeh’ day, a lot of people will soon fall back on their old ‘lowrated’ ways.  The strains and stresses of behaving properly might prove to be very taxing.

The Higher Monkey Climb

Louise Bennett

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou creates yet another enthusiastic character who also writes to a Jamaican in the Diaspora, singing the praises of the new state of Independence.  But the speed with which the weight of Independence is dropped on Jamaica – biff, buff, baps – leaves the letter-writer dizzy:

So much tings happen so fas an quick

Me head still feel giddy!

Biff Referandum! Buff, Election!

Baps, Independence drop pon we!

Jamaican High Commission, London

At the root of the poem is the cautionary Jamaican proverb, ‘the higher monkey climb, the more him expose himself.’  The presumptuous elevation of Jamaica to a scanty army, an unformed navy, consuls and ambassadors who ‘Dah rub shoulder an dip mouth/ Eena heavy world affairs’, is clear evidence of the pride that goes before the fall.

The make-do armaments of the newly independent nation are remarkably similar to the stones that are not flung in “Independence Dignity.” The more things change, the more they remain the same:

We defence is not defenceless

For we got we half a brick,

We got we broken bottle

An we coocoomacca stick;

But we willin to put down we arms

In Peace and Freedom’s name

An we call upon de nations

Of de worl to do de same.

‘Me Heart Go Boop’

Sir Clifford Campbell,
first native governor-general

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou also raises the vexing issue of colour and class politics in the newly independent nation.  She highlights an amusing case of mistaken identity, underscoring old antagonisms. The new, native Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, resembles a family member, Bada John.  At Independence, the changing face of authority would seem to confirm the ‘elevation’ of not just the Jamaican state, but, more important, black people.

But with wicked wit Miss Lou reveals the purely superficial nature of what appears to be fundamental social change.  The immediate response to what looks like Bada John’s picture in the newspaper humorously defines the usual circumstances in which a black person would be deemed newsworthy in the media politics of the times – the heralding of misfortune:

Di fus day im picture print, de

Paper drop outa me han;

Me heart go boop, me bawl out

‘Something bad happen to John!

Sir Kenneth Blackburne, last British governor and first
governor-general of independent Jamaica

‘Meck dem draw de picture big so?

Him too ole fi pass exam!

Him no buy no sweepstake ticket?

Someting bad happen to John!’

Of course, nothing bad has happened to John.  But in the eyes of some backward Jamaicans, the resemblance between him and the Governor General would have been a clear sign that something bad had happened to that high office.  The representative of the queen really ought not to look like her subjects.

A Speck of Greatness

In all of the mockery of the grand rhetoric of Independence, Miss Lou does affirm the high self-esteem of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans. Miss Mattie, for example, has a rather expansive vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

What independent-minded Miss Mattie does acknowledge is the fact that map-making is not an exact science.  Territorial borders shift as power dynamics change.  Furthermore her vivid image of repositioning us out of the sea and putting us into the ocean is a recognition of the transatlantic origins of the Jamaican people.

Our history is one of migration.  All of us foreigners who came, willingly or not, and now call this island our own, do have a sense of ancestral homelands. This speck of Jamaica is great because our conception of ourselves is not dependent solely on our present insular location. Beyond the boundaries of this little island, we envision landscapes of greatness that we can also claim as ours.

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Independence ‘Pin of Pride’ Made in China

ImageOnce upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway.  The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality.  Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.

Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world.  These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market.  And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home.  Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.

China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people.  Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour.  The social cost is often rather high.  It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.

Fake Memories

Image     One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’.  Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough.  Even photographs are not enough.  You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had!  I guess.

Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit.  Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.

Image      It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists.   The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out!  91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.

True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”.  The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs.  That’s the trouble with being a global language.  The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please.  And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal.  Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.

Showcasing nationalism?

Image       Jamaica is in excellent company.  You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia.  You can stay right at home.  I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica.  I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.  But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China.  I checked with the distributor.

The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.

The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.

It really does sound very good.  Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride?  Did it have to be a pin from China?  And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot.  It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.

There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica!  Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica?  Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years?  What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?

‘Might as cheap’

All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’.  It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago.  The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”.  I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.

A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park.  Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence.  I urge everyone to go and have a look.  It’s something to be really proud of.

To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good.  And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them.  At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear.  In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins.  I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.

But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride.  The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’.  They will be laughing all the way to the bank.  In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of!  And that’s rather shameful. ,

African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.

Happy Birthday All The Same, Buju!

It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars.  Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street.  Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career.  It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.

The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation.  In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:

Lorna Goodison

That dey road no pave

like any other black-face road

it no have no definite color

and it fence two side

with live barbwire

And no look fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

for sometime you pass a ting

you know as . . . call it stone again

and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu

kill yu

or is a dead man tek him

possessions tease yu.

That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man.  That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.

Spreading propaganda

Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent.  In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.

‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes

Always be depress

There’s no life in di West

I know di East is di best

All di propaganda dem spread

Tongues will ha fi confess

Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess

And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless

Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless

Holler fi di needy an shelterless

Ethiopia await all prince and princess

A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical.  Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty.  He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.

Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain.  But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt.  Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice.  But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.

Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention

‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career.  It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon.  Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall.  Most of the tracks focus on sexual love.  Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex.  But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires.  It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world:  “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.

The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead.  Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.

But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice.  In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:

Where food is concerned there is a problem

Uman can’t find food fi gi di children

While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem

But woe be unto dem

He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end

Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.

On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion.  At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance:  “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”

The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.

Marcus Garvey

Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:

What coulda bad so bout di East?

Everybody want a piece

Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak

Unification outnumber defeat

What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street

Banner pon head, Bible inna hand

One an all mek wi trod di promised land

Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land

Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from

In Addis Ababa then Botswana

Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana

Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold

Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold

Keep the faith, Buju!  You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.